Guilty pleasures

One blog you should be reading every day, even if you’re not that into fashion or celebrity but you just like to laugh, is Go Fug Yourself. The Fug Girls are hilarious, and pepper their outfit critiques with heaps of old pop culture references to send you giggling down memory lane – Brenda Walsh and Alexis Carrington are their fashion, nay, life gurus after all.

Today they posted a fantastic interview with Mandi Line, the costume designer from Pretty Little Liars. PLL is a ridiculous teen soap that was one of last year’s off-ratings-season winners for ABC Family. Not sure when it’s going to get a run on Australian television, but it’s second season has just started in the US and I have no hesitation in saying PLL is the new Gossip Girl. Fourth season return to form notwithstanding (Juliet snapping to Serena “no, you stupid bitch!” is surely one of the best moments in GG’s history), PLL’s first ten episodes trump much of Gossip Girl’s bloated melodrama.

PLL centres around four high school girls in the aftermath of the disappearance of their friend and queen bee Alison. The story picks up a year after they last saw Alison, as Aria (the tortured, artistic one) returns from a year in Iceland with her family. The other main characters are Hannah, the fat girl turned new queen bee; Spencer, the preppy OCD overachiever; and Emily, the sweet-natured jock. The four band back together when they start getting mysterious messages from “A” who knows all their deepest, darkest secrets.

It’s all very implausible, over-the-top and at times wildly inappropriate – the show oddly glorifies a downright illegal relationship between Aria and her teacher, not-as-innocent-as-she-seems Alison seems to have had flings with a number of much older dudes, and Spencer has a history of macking on her older sister’s adult boyfriends. But it’s all so camp and silly and fun, with twists you really don’t see coming. And to the show’s credit, it handles a lesbian storyline really gently and realistically. It’s probably the least sensationalised storyline, not to mention one of the few age-appropriate relationships!

The GFY interview with Line is interesting because on many of these glam young shows, the costumer is arguably as important as the scriptwriters. Costume has always been integral to how characters are presented, a kind of shorthand the viewer often picks up on subconsciously. And it’s cool to hear Line talk about the decisions she makes to express characters’ personalities, and the input the actors have. I like the point that stylists just have to make someone look good, whereas a costume designer has to consider background and context as well as character.

“Rachel Zoe is amazing, she’s great, but she gets what is in and what is right. She doesn’t have to do a background thing, like okay, Aria can’t be with the person she loves, her parents are going through this, and she’s at home reading… like, Aria isn’t going to always be glam. She’s going to be in sweats and the things that fit the situation, the tone.”

Today we see incredibly high production values and attention to detail in styling shows like Gossip Girl, right through to period styling on shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. It would be fascinating to know more about how they source and age fabrics and props on these shows – all the Lucky Strike cigarette boxes on Mad Men, etc.

But there’s a mercenary aspect to the rise of the costume department too. As the way people watch television changes – on demand and online rather than dictated to by the networks – traditional ratings systems and sources of revenue like advertising lose value. So programs are increasingly driven by product placement. Remember all the jarring references to Vitamin Water and Bing in Gossip Girl? On a slightly more subtle level, the clothing and accessories characters wear are more of the same. Whole blogs and websites are now dedicated to helping kids source the products to emulate their small screen idols.

Feeding the trend, labels and designers also recognise these shows as important outlets to tout their wares. Just as stylists have become celebrities in their own right (see Zoe, Rachel) names like Eric Daman, costumer for Gossip Girl, have also become well known. What’s less well known, that comes through in the Line interview, is how punishing the work is.

“Most costumers who do what I do, like, their feet, I have to have surgery in January. I wear braces on both feet. You don’t sit down. You walk the malls all day, and you’re fitting people Lucy’s height, and you’re on your knees, getting up, bending down. At the Warner Bros. office we have people from The Hangover, Chuck, Undercovers, and I’m not kidding, probably 75 percent of them have had surgeries on their feet, their elbows, shoulders, or are in braces.”

I got to thinking about depictions of privilege in teen television after another GFY-sponsored nostalgia binge. On a routine fugging of Kate Bosworth, the Fug Girls recalled a summer soap called Young Americans. I remember it starting when we were in high school, full of pretty young things, and we were excited at the possibility it would be “the new Dawson’s”. They actually went quite out-there with the storylines – the old accidental-incest-romance, the boy-falls-for-girl-in-drag-thinks-he’s-gay…

The ratings didn’t spark and the show was cancelled after eight eps, and it’s far from amazing quality, but if you wanted to it is possible to find all the episodes on YouTube. Don’t ask me how I know this, I’m just sayin. What’s crazy is where many those pretty young things from a terrible forgotten soap are now. It was Kate Bosworth’s breakthrough role; Ian Somerhalder is now on The Vampire Diaries; Kate Moennig went on to star in The L-Word (perhaps playing a teenage drag king was good practice for playing a butch lesbo?); Michelle Monaghan even shows up as a love interest.

What’s noticeable about a series like this from just a decade ago, as well as the much more relaxed approach to costuming, is how different the vibe is to something like Gossip Girl. In both a “poor” kid with a talent for writing is the audience’s peephole into a world of privilege, and the class struggles between rich and poor remain. But Young Americans glorifies the part-time jobs and resourcefulness of the townies in contrast to the blithe idleness of the rich boarding school kids. Whereas in GG any aberrance to the expensive lifestyle of the Upper East Siders is viewed as unnatural. Even new money is frowned upon, and those who attempt to crack the upper echelons with no more than talent and determination are rewarded with condescension and comeuppance. Consider how many times Jenny Humphrey and Vanessa Abrams have been humiliated for trying to rise above the class they’re born to (even if Vanessa is wildly irritating). Go back a few years, even just to The OC or One Tree Hill, and the rich kids are the other, the amoral characters, and they learn from the less privileged outsiders who are thrust into their world. But today the rich kids are still amoral, and yet they’re the ones we want to emulate.

Perhaps the rise of excess and escapism is some kind of reaction to the global financial crisis? Food for thought… Or just me trying to rationalise my addiction to trash TV? You know you love me. XOXO

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